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Even in a
supposedly enlightened age, superstitions abound concerning literature: one of the
foremost being that no poor judgment can stand the test of Time, that posthumous
reputations are uniformly just. For proof of the contrary, one need look no further than
Ezra Pound. This American poet, recognized by his contemporaries as a master, and
singularly influential on the course of modern poetry, was subjected to a malicious
criticism only after his death. And this is, perhaps, what is genuinely surprising:
that one of our great poets has been more mistreated in death than in life, and by the
gossip of his descendants.
This gossip, masquerading as criticism, has focused on
Pounds fascism, his antisemitism, and his alleged insanity. The academic criticism
on Pound, especially, has often substituted extra-literary condemnations of the man, and
his life, for analysis of his literary achievements. That certain opinions exclude their
holder from polite society is unquestionably true, and deserved. That the criteria of
polite society should be used to exclude one from the canons of literary taste is another
matter altogether, and not one to be seconded only for the sake of social (not to mention
Now it cannot be disputed that Pound held fascist and antisemitic
views: this is a biographical fact. One encounters his praise of Mussolini and his
condemnation of the Jews in his letters, his radio speeches, and his prose. Further, it
must be conceded that Pounds views were maintained for so long, in the face of so
much contravening evidence, that they were not merely irresponsible, but amounted to a
kind of immorality.
Yet in what sense is this biographical fact important to the
reader? For the basis of the poets reputation is his poetry, and not his
life. Do we judge a particular work of art to be immoral because of the authors
immorality, or the immorality of his other works? To do so would be to predetermine our
response. No, the work of art must be judged solely on its own merit, which requires an
objectivity often to be effected only by its isolation.
Now I take it for granted that a work of art can be immoral. Nor
do I think a convincing argument can be made that moral criteria must be, a priori,
excluded from artistic judgment, though their inclusion there is not always applicable.
Such criteria cannot help us when confronting Alice In Wonderland, though they are
absolutely necessary before Crime and Punishment. The purely aesthetic reading of
literature, that central tenet of the Art For Arts Sake movement, is not a permanent
value of literary criticism; it was, however, a necessary reaction to the purely
moralistic criticism of the nineteenth century under which artists as diverse as Swinburne
and Blake suffered.
Moral criteria should intrude into literary criticism only when
moral issues intrude into the contents of literature. Quite simply, the degree to which
Pounds fascist and antisemitic opinions should enter into literary judgment is the
degree to which they enter into his poetry. Now such opinions appear in
Pounds poetry only in his later work, The Cantos, and there very
infrequently. In an epic poem stretching some 800 pages there are, if one compiled the
passages, perhaps three or four pages of objectionable material. The immorality of his
verse is, after all, demonstrably slight.
Why Ezra Pound has become, in spite of this, "the scapegoat
of modern poetry" as Karl Shapiro called him, is an interesting story too lengthy to
continue here. Suffice to say that Pound has been chosen by critics as a kind of token
sacrifice from the pantheon of Modernist authors who held sinful and reactionary views (a
list which includes W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Filippo Marinetti, and Ferdinand Céline to
name a very few). Thus, while the Céline of Bagatelles pour un massacre has been
disregarded for the Céline of Mort á credit, just as the Eliot of "Burbank
with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" has been ignored for the Eliot of Ash
Wednesday, a very different protocol has been used concerning Pounds literary
reputation. The author of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Cathay has been buried
under his radio speeches and letters so that his name has become synonymous, in many
minds, with the worst crimes of the twentieth century.
His name does not deserve this fate. In fact, it has taken a
systematic misrepresentation of Pounds poetry to achieve his infamy. This has not
been the project of hack journalists or Gertrude Stein fans but, incredibly, of Poundian
scholars themselves. It must be admitted that some academic scholars were highly
uncomfortable with Pounds canonical position in American letters, for the sole
reason that he held fascist and antisemitic views. Their critical assaults, therefore,
were conducted with little pretense of objectivity, which was unnecessary in such a
campaign, since those who dared to object could be branded easily enough as ideological
compatriots of the poet.
A strange dichotomy now pervades literary criticism. In an age
that disowns the Catholic Index and the obscenity trial, that embraces every scandalous
work from Petronius to Leautréamont, The Cantos almost singularly retains its evil
reputation. And while such worthless novels as Les 120 Journées de sodome trumpet
their author as "a writer whose originality of thought and language warrants his
being given a permanent high place in French literature" (to quote an entry in Benets
Readers Encyclopedia), The Cantos is vilified as "a fascist epic in
a precise historical sense." The latter book, however, contains only a few, scattered
lines of ideological filth.
And that is the real problem. Pounds reputation as the poet
laureate of Nazism cannot be supported by reference to his poetry. Even the critics
busy condemning Pound seem to know this, since they so often make references to
objectionable comments found in his letters or his speeches, while
ostensibly reviewing his literary achievement. Wendy Stallard Flory, in her book The
American Ezra Pound, often gets confused this way:
Most problematic, even preemptively so, is the matter of
Pounds antisemitism. His work cannot be addressed in any unqualified way until this
issue is examined in full...Further, it is likely to be far more of a consideration for
those whose outrage at Pound makes it impossible to take him seriously as a poet...the
antisemitism of the radio broadcasts has kept so many potential readers from engaging with
Pounds poetry in an unequivocal way or even at all...
It need hardly be added that Flory never
explains exactly how the antisemitism "of the radio broadcasts" disqualifies the
poetry. The underlying assumption is simply that it does, and must. All reasonable people
will understand this to be so, since they are the ones too outraged to even read the poet.
So, in her knowing way, Flory agrees to take up all of the readers objections and
explain the poet as best she can.
It also need hardly be added that Flory isnt doing Pound
any favors. Florys book is, in fact, an attempt to save him for these readers by
showing that he was one shade better than a monster. One chapter includes an extended
comparison between Pound and Adolph Eichmann! The reader will now understand, supposedly,
that Pound was quite moderate, when properly measured against the other beasts of the age,
and give Personae one more try. One can safely assume that Ms. Florys tactics
are tongue-in-cheek, for it is hardly believable that any reader, not even the imaginary
ones that this critic has written her book for, would be drawn to read Pound after such
Unsurprisingly, these imaginary readers who were so outraged that
they could not even approach Pounds verse turn out to be other critics. This is
undeniably true for two reasons: Pounds radio broadcasts from Rome were never heard
by the American public, and the transcripts of those broadcasts were unpublished until
1978, six years after his death. Thus, Flory worries that this ideal, outraged reader will
dismiss Pound based upon speeches they have never heard, since those who bothered to
purchase and read the broadcasts were almost exclusively scholars. There cant be
more than a thousand copies of these compiled transcripts (entitled "Ezra Pound
Speaking") in existence, and most of them are gathering dust in research
libraries. That any reader actually approached Pound through the radio speeches first, and
then gave up on the poetry, is a ludicrous idea.
Still, Flory is considered a moderate in the world of Poundian
criticism, by attempting to apologize for him. And never mind the novelty of the apology.
The Journal of Modern Literature was perversely correct when it commented that
"The Pound who emerges from Florys readings is a much more humane and
sympathetic figure than is to be found in most criticism of the man and his work."
More sympathetic and humane, at any rate, than E. Fuller
Torreys The Roots Of Treason, the most egregious example of biography one can
imagine. Doctor Torrey is no less than a psychiatrist working at the very same St.
Elizabeths Hospital where Pound was incarcerated thirteen years for
"insanity." Thus, this psycho-biography is full of the kind of authoritative
diagnoses reserved, more usually, to God:
In current psychiatric nomenclature his would be called a
narcissistic and cyclothymic personality disorder, which encompasses people who are highly
productive, unusually creative, hypersexual, have inflated self-esteem, require constant
admiration, lack empathy, often take advantage of others, and respond with rage when
criticized. Many politicians, corporate executives, and entertainers fall into this
Ah yes, those "unusually
creative" corporate executives and politicians! And Torrey has this to say about
Pounds incarceration at St. Elizabeths:
For someone who had been indicted on nineteen counts of treason,
Pound could have done much worse. The hospital sits on a hill overlooking the
nations capital, its spacious grounds covered with flowering trees planted by an
early superintendent with arboreal interests. In 1946...the hospital had is own laundry,
bakery, fire department, library, auditorium, gymnasium, and tennis courts. It wasnt
Harvard, but neither was it Leavenworth.
One senses more in this paragraph than an
employee making sure his hospital gets some good copy, one senses an annoyance at all
those rival biographers who so graphically described the horrors Pound was subjected to
while confined to its "spacious grounds." Torrey wants the reader to know that
this was one very swank madhouse, and that Pound was granted special privileges in it,
though how much this meant to the poet amid the constant screaming at night, while
padlocked in his tiny cell, would be difficult to gauge. Such fine surroundings, Torrey
assures us, ensured that "St. Elizabeths...rivaled London in being his happiest
years as well."
The Roots Of Treason is helpful, however, for the light it
casts on the question of Pounds sanity and on Dr. Winfred Overholser, an eminent and
enlightened psychiatrist, who saved the poets life. It was Overholser who convinced
the other psychiatrists assigned to evaluate Pound to judge him insane, and who got the
poet transferred to St. Elizabeths, where the doctor presided as superintendent. It
is an heroic story, for the doctor was able to single-handedly protect the poet from
standing trial, on charges that were punishable by execution, against the diagnoses of
three Army psychiatrists, and almost the entire psychiatric staff at his own hospital.
Dr. Torrey is, of course, disgusted with his predecessor
for obstructing justice and harboring the poet. He wishes that Dr. Overholser had been
discredited as a traitor and that Pound had hung for his infamous "radio
treason." Poundian scholars thus divide, largely, into two camps on this issue: the
one finds the poet a sane and terrible man who should have stood trial, and the second
finds him a strange and insane poet who should have been locked up in a psychiatric ward
long before 1947.
Such biographies find their sorry match in several commentaries
on The Cantos, written by those who would turn Pound into the Lord Haw-Haw of
poetry. They range from the silly to the stupefying, and Massimo Bacigalupos The
Forméd Trace is a model of the former kind of criticism. In the preface, he informs
the reader that, if his critical position must be known, "I will say that I concur
with R.P. Blackmurs statement of 1934 that Pound is neither a great poet nor a
great thinker." Having dispensed with the pleasantries, he then suggests:
In many ways the Cantos belong in those shops that sell
swastikas and recordings of Mussolinis speeches, for they are, among other things,
the sacred poem of the Nazi-Fascist millennium which mercifully never eventuated.
Reading through Pounds epic poem, one
not only wonders how the poet played Virgil to the Führer, but falters into bemused
silence before an imaginary picture of Hitler, at a night rally, raising The Cantos
above his hand and exhorting the troops to build the thousand-year phantastikon.
The reader will, in fact, search vainly through 815 pages for the Nazi-Fascist narrative,
stumbling instead on two cantos written in Italian, as well as a few dozen nasty lines,
scattered mostly in the middle, throughout the Pisan Cantos. God knows what they
have made of the preceding 422 pages. Such a search is rather anti-climactic, and I pity
those readers who buy the poem in anticipation of the dark pleasure of reading "the
sacred poem of the Nazi-Fascist millennium."
Indeed, the continuing publication of books such as The
Forméd Trace proves mostly that no large constituency of readers, even among
academics, is familiar enough with the poem to recognize obvious critical fabrications.
Perhaps most incredible, though, is the beginning of Bacigalupos acknowledgments:
"I am grateful to Olga Rudge and to the late Dorothy and Ezra Pound for their
friendship and some suggestions..."
For sheer ingenuity of spite, however, no critic has yet
approached The Genealogy Of Demons by Robert Casillo. This book is exactly what its
author hoped it would be-- a compendium of the various denunciations of Pound, in which no
critical apparatus, or fashionable strategy, is allowed to go unused. Sartre, Lacan, René
Girard, Derrida, and Freud all get thanked in the introduction for helping Casillo handle
Pound; their theories, along with all "the modern social sciences," have helped
to lay bare, among other sins, Pounds "pervasive phallocentrism."
Lest the naive reader be indifferent to such charges, Casillo
then proceeds to explain why Pound must be exposed by the most "unflinching"
Indeed, by a careful selection of Pounds statements one might
present him, as have many critics, as a misunderstood apostle of benevolence, justice, and
humanitarianism. One might do the same for Adolph Hitler, a writer whom Pound resembles as
much as he resembles any other.
Indeed! Pound does not resemble Eichmann
(the comparison that Flory uses, in a book that Casillo castigates as a real apologia)
so much as the great leader himself. One might be initially surprised to know that the
author of Personae bears the greatest stylistic resemblance to the author of Mein
Kampf, but such are the Eleusinian mysteries that Casillo offers to share with us. Nor
is this passage an aberration. On the contrary, Casillo seems positively enamored with the
It would not be too inane to conjecture that, very soon, other
critics will provide us with similar couplings of Pound with every other Nazi high
official. Why not Himmler and Goring too? And what were Goebbels views, exactly, on
meter? Or did he prefer vers libre when rhapsodizing on the Final Solution? In
fact, everything about Pound conspired to make him a fascist, according to this author:
Pounds anti-monotheism, his reverence for the concrete and
natural manifold, his emphasis on hierarchy, his suspicion of abstraction and
transcendence, his glorification of myth and ritual, his agrarianism, his patriarchy, his
anti-feminism, his solar religion, his abhorrence of usury, to give only a few examples.
All of these taken together form a typical, mutually reinforcing fascist constellation.
This could be called the "scorched
earth policy" of criticism. In fact, Casillo is so intent on getting his man that his
blanket condemnations form an inadvertent apology for the poet. After all, if virtually
every one of Pounds beliefs and values led him to fascism, what else could he do?
But lest the reader mistake Casillos book as simply
good, old-fashioned hatred masked through the thin veil of ill-digested popular
psychology, or the sound and the fury signifying "phallo-centric" envy, the
author clarifies what exactly is at stake:
The Pound cult would probably not have attained its present
proportions if the liberal critics, instead of merely condemning and ignoring Pounds
poetry for its overt ideological evil, had fully elucidated the intimate relation between
his poetry and politics. This strategy, had it been carried out in the years following the
Bollingen controversy, would have prevented any facile and sophistic apologetic
dissociation of Pounds poetry...But the liberal critics, by at once condemning,
ignoring and failing to explain Pound, have unwittingly fostered other critics
attempts to turn him into a cultural god.
The critical conspiracy against Ezra Pound
has nowhere been more openly acknowledged than here. Casillo wants "liberal"
critics to tie the poets political views to his poetry, so that if one wishes
to read him, it will come at the cost of general disapprobation. The Hitler comparison is
important in this endeavor; the goal of Casillos book is to make the figure of Pound
as "questionable" as that of the Fuhrer. This passage is not only a call to
arms, but also a conspicuous bit of self-praise, for Casillo has written the book that
exemplifies this new and much needed "liberal" criticism.
And hard though it might be to imagine, Casillo wants to see even
more of these examinations of Pounds politics, though he has left little room for
"further elucidation." After all, what tactic has he not already tried? Still,
Casillo has not been disappointed. The 1980s and 1990s have seen a flood of
articles appear on this subject, usually in a tone so shrill with moral dismissiveness
that such lesser book-length ignominies as William M. Chaces The Political
Identities of Ezra Pound & T.S. Eliot and Paul Morrisons Poetics of
Fascism seem temperate by comparison.
One need not be seeking tenure to sense a groundswell here:
Casillos "new school" not only enlarges Poundian criticism, it dominates
it. The political Pound has completely subsumed the poetic one, at least for all academic
intents and purposes. And while a steady stream of articles continues to discuss and
deplore his views, his contributions to literature are largely ignored, or made to suffer
the guilt of association. This "new school" of "liberal" criticism is
the exact opposite of the former New Criticism: rather than the autonomous work of art, we
have art infected by biography, anecdote, personal letters, comments reported third-hand,
and the like.
Such practices lead, invariably, to a miscarriage of criticism,
as here. Few literary figures, of any era, have suffered such a crowd of pernicious
critics. Indeed, no major literary figure of this century has been more mistreated.
But the time has come to condemn those critics who have so patently demonstrated an
ability to fabricate plot and particular, and an inability to distinguish literature from
other written material. Their errors have been summarized magnificently by Stephen
Vizinczey. In a postscript to his review on Heinrich von Kleist, commenting on a letter
that he had received from a university professor who questioned the excessive praise of
Kleist in light of his character, Mr. Vizinczey wrote:
But even if Kleist had written innumerable diatribes against the
French and even if he had eaten two of Napoleons corporals every day for breakfast,
this wouldnt detract from the importance of his masterpieces. There is a kind of
academic philistinism which equates literary greatness with good behaviour and thereby
produces a pathetic crop of university graduates who are intimately familiar with the real
or imaginary faults of great men without having the slightest idea why these men were
great or why they matter to us.